Paul Murray reviews Springboks on the Somme: South Africa in the Great War 1914–1918

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Click here to purchase your copySpringboks on the Somme: South Africa in the Great War 1914–1918

By Bill Nasson

Publishers: Penguin Books SA
Published: September 2007
ISBN: 9780143025351
Pages: 300
Price: R180


In seven years' time, if not before there, will be a great amount of literature appearing in commemoration of the outbreak of one of the most gruesome events ever recorded in history, the First World War. Springboks on the Somme: South Africa in the Great War 1914–1918 by Cape Town University academic Bill Nasson has come out even sooner, for a very good reason. The book is in remembrance of Joe Samuels, Springbok veteran of the Great War and last survivor of the Battle of Delville Wood. Had Nasson waited to have his book appear to coincide with the centenary year of the outbreak of the war, he would surely have lost the opportunity of capturing the testimony from one of the survivors of that war, for Joe Samuels died in 1997 in his one hundredth year.

Nasson is well placed to present a history such as this. As Professor of History at the University of Cape Town he has written several books on war, including Abraham Esau's War and The South African War 1899–1902. Abraham Esau's War is particularly important in South African historiography because it compels historians to take note of the fact that the South African War of 1899–1902 can no longer be treated as a "white man's war", since Black South African soldiers were drawn into service in the war from both the British and South African sides. Black experience in the war is also explored by A Grundlingh, Fighting Their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War (Johannesburg, 1987) and N Clothier, Black Valour: The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916–1918 (Pietermaritzburg, 1987).

In Abraham Esau's War thewar itself had a large effect on the black communities, in several different ways. The title of the book is named after a coloured artisan, Abraham Esau, who was murdered by Boer guerrillas. Black soldiers returning from the war were left out of any rewards at the signing of the peace. One book critic has said of Abraham Esau's War: "Dr Nasson sets the conflict in the context of Cape political culture and social life at the turn of the century. This is a major contribution to South African and Imperial history."

In this sense Nasson is can be seen as an alternative historian, writing a counter-history, depicting the contributions of marginalised persons in the Great War. These valuable insights create a special place and importance for readers of history and for historians, exposing them, and history itself, to a dimension that they would never have encountered if it were not for the likes of historians such as Nasson.

In his book The South African War 1899–1902 Nasson aims to inform his readers that just more than a century on, there is need to revisit the "harsh imperialist-republican fight". Among other themes, he argues that it was not just a white man's war. Many of the black population were involved. The book argues that the war carries with it significance not just for local or Anglo-Boer and South African history, but also for world history. He explains the unfolding of the war and how it galvanised into a violent struggle between the two warring parties. The view of each other, the conduct of operations and the broader effect on the societies feature in the book, as do the road to peace and also how the war is remembered.

On 13 September 2007 Professor Nasson won the UCT book award for Britannia's Empire. Professor Vivian Bickford-Smith, Head of Historical Studies at UCT, describes this book as a "wry take on the British Empire, (which) has received well deserved acclaim and a German language version is about to be released", and continues:

How did Britain, once an insignificant province of the Roman Empire, rise to become an imperial power itself, possessing the largest territorial empire ever seen? How did the British reconcile plunder and enslavement with moral and humanitarian concerns? What is the legacy of the Empire in today's Commonwealth? These are some of the questions addressed in Nasson's narrative.

Typical of Nasson he has taken a different angle and brought something totally new to historical writing on the subject.

It is clear that Nasson displays a great deal of narrative energy in his writing in the above three texts. He makes history come alive and the reader is drawn into the text, finding his accounts lively. He does not always go for accounts that are found in history books; instead, he looks for the interesting angles to the accounts, personal testimonies, anomalies, "miscalculations and illusions", ensuring that you get a good picture of the war – and that you thoroughly enjoy the reading experience. If one can venture a comparison, he is the Pavarotti of historical texts.

Springboks on the Somme: South Africa in the Great War 1914–1918 is part of a very large and comprehensive historiography. Nasson says that the book is the culmination of "several years of reading both printed and archival documentary material". He explains that since it is a Penguin history, he has "avoided cluttering it up with the usual scaffolding of scholarly endnotes, keeping references limited and restricted mostly to more accessible primary and secondary sources for inquisitive readers who may wish to dig further". He has placed the book in the context of extant historiography on the topic. For general reading Hew Strachan's Oxford History of the First World War (Oxford, 1998) is comprehensive. Strachan sees the war as a race among generals on all sides to come up with new weapons and tactics more quickly than their opponents, which resulted in victory for the Triple Entente (Britain and France). However, it was also a race among soldiers "to fight with these new weapons and tactics instead of raw courage and numbers wherever possible".

There are a number of important books that represent more recent studies of general histories of the 1914–1918 War: M Ferro, The Great War 1914–1918 (London, 1973); J Winter and B Baggett, 1914–1918: The Great War and Shaping of the 20th Century (London, 1996); H Cecil and P H Liddle (eds), Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced (London. 1996); H Strachan (ed), S Audoin-Rouzeau and A Becker, 14–18: Understanding the Great War (New York, 2002). For textson the imperial background to South Africa's involvement, Nasson has referred the reader to R Holland, "The British Empire and the Great War, 1914–1918" in J M Brown and W Roger Louis (eds), The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume 4: The Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1999). In addition, Nasson has supplied a comprehensive reading list on the following topics: the impact of the war on Africa; the South African Rebellion; the German South West African invasion; the German East African intervention; fighting on the Western Front; black experience; social and economic conditions on the home front; and finally, the general question of war memory. (These references can be found on pp 249–50 of the text.)

Springboks on the Somme: South Africa in the Great War 1914–1918 is divided into three parts. In his engaging and easy-to-read prose which is the mark of the book, Nasson opens with an explanation of the importance of a stable Union of South Africa within the British Empire: "With the fruits of unification came a natural desire to enhance the national stature and prestige of the new South Africa in the imperial system.”


Yet the 1912 Defence Act excluded blacks from military service unless Parliament gave authorisation for this. The British were far more interested in the Union's potential "war muscle" in the form of economic resources and reserves of fighting men and labouring civilians. Thus the expeditionary Springbok contribution to the Western Front was seen to be a valuable one. Nasson's book explores these different contributions in a refreshing way: "In the course of that participation, the country's dominant political elite would define one of the purposes of waging war as enhancing the stature of a South African nationhood.”

The first part of the book, "Opening shots, 1914–1915: Sliding into war and the enemy within"over two chapters, deals with the responses of South Africans to the proclamation of war. Nasson explains that in South Africa, "war sentiment was both more divided and more layered than in any other imperial dominion" (Australia, New Zealand and Canada are some). This is in view of the Anglo-Boer struggle that ended twelve years before the outbreak of WWI. The time coincided with white labour discontent (the General Miners' Strike of 1914) and "black restiveness", which included African and Indian miners' strikes, anti-pass protests by African women in the Orange Free State and the launch of Mahatma Gandhi's Satyagraha campaign of non-violent protest. Thus it was a trying time for the country. Nasson places these events in context of the Union sliding into war. He provides fresh analysis of the reasons for the resistance to entering the war. This came from the quarters that staged the Afrikaner Rebellion, whose "grievances and hostilities were sufficiently fierce to prompt armed insurrection against the state”. A detailed account of this is in chapter two, entitled: "The bearded peril: the Afrikaner Rebellion 1914–1915".Its importance in South African history is undisputed, hence the twenty-five pages from Nasson. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that when Nelson Mandela met PW Botha for tea in July 1989 (before Mandela was released) their friendly exchange of thirty minutes was spent "mainly on the subject of the 1914 rebellion by Afrikaner nationalists".

The second part of the book is entitled "Getting stuck in: Expeditions, aspirations, minding at home". These five chapters provide engaging and interesting reading about South Africa's initial involvement in the War through expeditions and aspirations while at the same time minding the situation at home. Here, as before, Nasson keeps the reader engaged, providing detail that is interesting and not found easily in history texts. The war in German South West Africa (now called Namibia) during the opening years of the war is the subject of the first of the five chapters. Analysing the South African effort there Nasson remarks, “The only thing that Botha's domestic disturbance did for Germany was to give its South West Africa forces a bit of breathing space before they faced being choked”. The German forces were clearly no contest, with "little death and even less glory". German East Africa (today called Tanzania) was different. The German defenders held out till February 1916 and the East African Front "was to see a lengthy and costly Allied campaign that lasted until late in 1918, snaking on after armistice in Europe". Nevertheless, its strategic importance, surrounded as it is by the sea and a number of British territories (Kenya, Uganda, Nyasaland), could not be denied. Thirty-two pages and a map outline the campaign by the South African soldiers in East Africa. There was "no European victory and defeat" from the campaign, even though the Germans were never quite beaten. South African forces suffered terribly from dysentery, pneumonia, malaria and other fevers. That is probably why many uttered the words, "Ah, I wish to hell I was in France." When you have read Nasson's account it seems almost as if you yourself have trodden through the desert of German West Africa, or the forests of East Africa.

What follows is a vivid, lively and crisp account of the prelude to the "big push". Twenty-eight pages and three maps tell of the Springboks crossing the sea to Delville Wood and Passchendaele, the arena of war from 1915 to 1918, and the Somme Offensive of 1916. En route the "Springboks on the High Seas" engaged in the highly unimaginable drill of musketry and bayonet practice aboard a ship, although, as Nasson points out, the testing of anti-gas defence equipment did not yet feature. The menace of gas – chemical warfare – would be a new feature of the battlefield. Initially the Springboks were en route to France, the arena of the fighting, but because the South African infantrymen had had experience in the desert when fighting in the South West African campaign, their rerouting to Egypt made sense, explains Nasson. The effect of dehydration was devastating. And so were the sandstorms. Soldiers were left with camel urine and rifle oil for moisture.

Nasson describes a gradual build-up: from the time of its formation to the time of its deployment during the second stage of the Somme offensive, there was a "Springbok national identity" being galvanised. He cites a colourful and memorable phrase of P Griffith, a WWI historian, which presents the image of the South Africans fighting in France:

Portrayed in stylized "Botha's boys" imagery as bronzed and big-boned infantrymen bred on the veld and burnished by Inter-Colonial Shield cadet shooting competitions, these were Africa's European elect, its archetypal "colonial supermen".

The position that the South African forces occupied at Delville Wood is carefully described. It had been in the hands of the Germans since 1914, "where Royal Scots had been battered away to no avail". Nasson's account of the battle is not descriptive in the sense that you have to read a great amount of boring detail of the battle; instead it is refreshingly and excitingly put across for the reader, a mark of the way Nasson writes throughout the book. In fact, it's almost as if Nasson is talking the reader through the book – you can almost hear him in the text. What was the role of the Sprinboks at Dellville Wood – part of the Somme campaign? The fact that there was a great loss of life at Dellville Wood makes it a "killing field" for Nasson. As a result of their efforts, the role of the South Africans "went on to be judged as one of the classic feats of the war".

For five days the South Africans engaged in what is said to have been "one of the most savage and attritional engagements of the Somme campaign, in which vastly outnumbered Union infantry achieved great distinction by taking the wood and hanging on against seemingly impossible odds". The 'Boks lost two thirds of their number whereas the British Lukin lost 750 out of 3 150. The South African contingent was nigh decimated. The remaining men, however, had not lost their "fiery stature". This gruelling encounter contributed to "a war narrative of a heroic, soldierly kind for the Union of South Africa's war chart", writes Nasson. Reports in the tabloids of the contribution made by the 'Boks were full of praise for their heroic action. Pro-war newspapers described them as "fighting like lions" and "darting like jackals".

Not only at Delville Wood but also at Passchendaele in Flanders the 'Boks distinguished themselves. Nasson describes how easily the Afrikaners could understand the Belgian soldiers who spoke Flemish, but many of the Flemish who were schooled in colleges had expected only black men from South Africa. This was perplexing, to say the least. Nasson makes the point about the two battles, Delville Wood and Passchendaele: "Unlike those of its men who died hideously, in animal solitude, not unlike dogs, the South African Brigade's animals had endured both Delville Wood and Passchensaele to end their days in serene innocence." This must be a unique way of putting it.

Remarkably, when the war ended some soldiers stayed on to join the Allied expeditionary forces in counter-revolutionary intervention in Russia, whilst many that returned to South Africa were required to do duty at the Rand Revolt, the Johannesburg white miners' strike.

These and many other facets of the history of the 'Boks of the Somme are placed in context for the reader, as I said, in an accessible and fun-to-read way. Nasson keeps the interest, especially through anecdotes, stories and interesting information without allowing the train of thought to be impaired in any way.

No representative account of Africa's participation in the WWI can possibly be complete without the tragic account of the Mendi. It is covered by Nasson in chapter six under the heading, "Second-string service: some fighting, but mainly labouring". When more labour troops were called for, the response from South Africa was to send blacks aboard the ship Mendi, which was rammed by another ship, the Darro, in the middle of February 1917. 600 black labourers drowned and so did 12 white officers. The House of Assembly rose as a token of respect. The account of the men who lost their lives in the Mendi, explains Nasson, could be used to further African unity and channelled into the consciousness through "fantastic", "exaggerated", or "colourful" strains of heroic oral tradition. The greatest of all points about the Mendi must surely be the story of the Xhosa evangelist on board who drowned after he'd piloted men through a disciplined drill or "death dance" as the ship was starting to sink. This, thought the Reverend William Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, would enable the men to meet their end with stoic dignity:

Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brother, we are drilling the drill of death. I, Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brother, for though they made us leave our weapons at home, our voices are left with our bodies.

Dyobha's words in the last line of his exhortation heighten the awareness of racial discrimination in South Africa, an unfortunate part of its history. Limiting black people to a non-combatant role only is quintessentially demeaning and patronising. Nasson's account, although quite brief, at least heightens the awareness of the role of those "native" fighters in the War that has been largely ignored. In Britain names of the drowned soldiers appear on a memorial in the port of Southampton … not very few. The forgotten role of the black soldiers who drowned in service in WWI is currently in the form of a film, which got its first screening at the South African High Commission in London. "Let Us Die Like Brothers is the story of the loss of 607 members of the South Africa Native Labour Corps. They were among 800 soldiers who traveled from South Africa to Britain to join the allied fight in World War I." Nasson's section of the chapter comes at a time when reading it together with viewing the film can provide the viewer and reader with more information on a topic that is little known of.

Chapter seven, entitled "Dealing with gold and other domestic matters", examines the economic effects of a war economy. Some things have to suffer. Nasson explains how "the impact of war … throttled the international economy", but that South Africa benefited from the intra-war and post-war situation, which is explained. During the war the British "clinched an exclusive agreement with the mining companies whereby all South African gold would be sold to her exclusively, at a fixed official rate of just under £4 per ounce". This measure had a profound effect on the value of South Africa's exports. There is the view that fixing the price at least benefited both mine owners and the Union because it gave certain guarantees for sale, although, as Nasson explains, there were certainly impending problems for mine owners in other matters, caused by the war.

Nasson has provided so much interesting detail about South Africa's economic position during the war that the book also features as a book of economic history of that time. Wine and spirits exports plummeted, and the sherry market suffered – the possible explanation is that the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was concerned that "falling productivity in war industries" was attributable "to drink".

The third part of the book comprises three chapters. Chapter eight deals specifically with Joe Samuels, based on oral history conducted in 1977 when Joe was 100 years old. Chapter nine gives us insights into the construction of the stories of colonial valour specifically by John Buchan, whose serialised writings between 1915 and 1919 culminated in Nelson's History of the War. Chapter ten closes the book with the title "Commemoration and Remembrance".

Joe Samuels was a Springbok veteran of WWI and one of the last South African survivors of the Battle of Delville Wood. His account is carefully given by Bill Nasson, and provides "an invaluable individual human perspective on the origins and nature of citizen soldiering …”. Nasson's initiative to base his writing on an oral account from a survivor must thus be highly commended.

The book gives a unique account of a personal "epic of service endurance and survival" from an individual South African, but this experience explains the "largely buried social seam of white male working-class involvement in the Union war effort". That is why Nasson's writing the book is so significant. It is harder to know about the role of working-class persons, and easier to find out about well-educated middle-class troops because while the latter group leaves behind a valuable repository of letters, documents, diaries and memoirs, the former leaves behind precious little. This book is thus a different perspective; with the kind of soldier that Joseph Samuels was, there is no account of an "enriching personal achievement or heroism".

The question can thus be asked: Who was the common soldier? For instance, Samuels "… drifted into war service by impulse rather than through being driven by masculine bravado or any particular patriotic tenacity". This kind of information gives the reader a counter-view of the real soldier out there.

In the oral narrative that Samuels gave when interviewed in 1997 his mind had become confused, causing the obfuscation of WWI and WWII. However, thinking back to the time when he wanted to join, he said he had been hearing about "a lot of discrimination against Jews, the Huns were going for them in an unfair way. Anybody of the Jewish faith, like me, couldn't not be worried."

He expected to be a good and proper soldier, defending the country's border, especially against "any menace from neighbouring German South West Africa". It was not always like that. What he saw was mostly “… fish, stars, the Southern Cross, and white foam along the coast" and "… there was plenty of time to have a smoke and make pals”.

Samuels's account of the Cape Corps Labour Battalion, a contingent of coloured soldiers, is in contrast to his own Union army identity: they were "a tough lot", and they were "real characters around cards, drink, and gambling stuff". He describes that there was some mingling, but the two groups kept to themselves socially.

His posting with other soldiers to British soil for training was characterised by a truly South African display: “Well, most of us did a fair bit of prancing about I suppose, what with our native war cries and shaking rifles above our heads like spears. That was the sort of emblem you could say, or our mark, coming as we did from South Africa we felt like being noisy, so the English and the French would know we weren't the sort to be sitting around all quiet. The Springbok Brigade became "the talk of Paris", chanting their "Zulu war cries". [It seems that with the Springbok rugby side in Paris in 2007, there could easily have been a repetition of that! - PLM]

The Western Front was reached during May 1916. This was an altogether different story, judging from Nasson's accounts. Sammy, as he was called, found that he was "always fagged out" from the stomach disorders. The experience in France is in stark contrast to the South African or South West African landscape. The rural French experience was that of "constant noise, marching across such small fields, lots of villages on top of each other", and "buses making a racket".

The feeling of being so far away from home was the more disconcerting because the British High Command was conspicuous by its remoteness and absence, unlike in the German South West campaign, where Sammy had met General Lukin, who "took the time to give you a smile and a good stare straight in the eye, he wasn't stuck up, all fancy".

Nasson describes the no-half-measure, heavy price of taking Delville Wood by Joe Samuels and his fellow Springbok infantryman. That's why it was called "Death Wood". Sammy himself was seriously wounded and had to be dragged from combat.

The ordinary soldier felt himself to be like an animal in the conflict, as he was immersed in "human filth", tunnelling into the ground in tremendous heat "as every last piece of soil was churned up by explosions, everywhere was steaming hot". The stench that accompanied dead corpses lying on the battlefield was unbearable, recounts Sammy.

The accounts of Sammy's ordeals in chapter eight, entitled "Joe Samuels: oral history of an expeditionary infantrymnan" are graphic, vivid and heroic, with no details spared. We get to read about a foot soldier's account that would not easily be found in other books. Nasson has produced something unique.

Nasson's foray into historical sources, such as oral accounts and documents about the war, provide further interesting accounts. For example, war journalist John Buchan was approached by Pretoria to produce a history of the South African contribution to the Allied War effort – but it was to be "an official History of the South African Forces in Europe". He ended up producing four hundred pages of history, published in 1920 as Buchan's History of the South African Forces in France.There are some controversial theories about the book that the reader can take note of in chapter nine, which is entitled "John Buchan and the creation of colonial valour".

The question remains: Did the South African soldiers of the Springbok Brigade represented by a small number in the perspective of the grand scheme of things, embody "the moral purpose and romantic meaning which coloured all of Buchan's writings on the British war effort as an epic of national survival"? Let the reader decide!

In the final chapter, "Commemoration and Remembrance", there is interesting reading to be had, especially the views expressed by those who have paid homage to the soldiers from South Africa for their acts of valour in the British and Allied offensives in France. Out of the acts and experience of those who served in France more than ninety years ago, a wealth of memories have resulted in commemoration and memorialisation in so many different ways. The South African Navy named one of its strike aircraft the SAS Isaac Dyobha. There is a Mendi decoration for gold, silver and bronze. The Comrades Marathon is a WWI memorial. On 1 July 2006, ninety years after the battle, the Weekend Argus carried two stories on the Battle of the Somme. One was by the war writer John Keegan.

It is books such as Nasson's Springboks on the Somme: South Africa in the Great War 1914–1918 that will enable the memories of the gallant efforts of men and women such as the South Africans in the Somme Offensive to be kept alive for posterity, when – in the words of Nasson himself – "South Africa's imperial legacy of death on the Somme has become ever more remote from its frontline war memory". Nasson's text has truly enriched South African historiography and beyond, giving insights into the role that her men and women played on the international front.



Bill NassonBill Nasson was born in Cape Town. He was educated at the Universities of Hull, York and Cambridge, and has visiting fellowships at Cambridge University and the University of Illinois. Nasson describes himself as a writer of history, not a historian who writes. He won his first UCT Book Award in 1993 for Abraham Esau's War: A black South African War in the Cape 1899-1902. It was a seminal publication, one that dissected an altogether neglected aspect of war and South Africa: the contributions of irregular soldiers and civilians.

For having recently won an award for Britannia's Empire, the following was said of Professor Nasson by John Darwin, an eminent scholar of the British Empire, wring in the UK's Times Literary Supplement:

The interweaving of social, cultural, political, diplomatic, economic and military history is extraordinarily deft: a huge range of reading is poured into some 200 pages. Much of the pleasure of the book comes from the freshness of the writing, which is crisp, economical and witty … Readers in search of a short history of the British Empire, comprehensive and bracing, need look no further.

The above description is a combination of an account from the back cover and the words of Helen Théron, taken from the internet site:

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